I Call First: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

Who's That Knocking At My Door movie poster

 

Martin Scorsese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shot over the course of several years, and was originally released in 1967 as I Call First. Its piecemeal origins are betrayed by two discrete sequences: one recounting the misadventures of a group of slacker friends in downtown New York, and a very different, more character and dialogue-driven love story between J.R. (Keitel) and the unnamed “Girl on the Staten Island Ferry” (Zina Bethune).

Non-linear cross-cutting between the two adds up to more than the sum of their parts. J.R. is increasingly hesitant to horse around with his gangster friends, a lifestyle involving shaking down debtors, terrorizing each other with loaded pistols, and going uptown to get with — and then rob — gullible girls. His reticence is explained by a parallel sequence in which he meets cute with The Girl. Similarly, their young courtship is given weight by the audience’s knowledge of what he’s done with his life so far, and how drastic a change he faces by considering marrying her.

Harvey Keitel in Who's That Knocking at My DoorThe passion of Harvey Keitel

J.R. is much more sensitive than his brutish chums to the splendor of nature and to the catharsis of cinema. His idea of seducing a girl is to lecture her on Hollywood Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in particular. His models of masculinity come from the movies, especially John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and he divides women into two categories: broads and girls (which is another way of saying whores and madonnas). The Girl is savvy enough to know what she’s getting into; she clearly catches his meaning when he slips and openly refers to her as a broad.

Another piece to the puzzle was a sex montage added in order to ensure distribution. Scorsese scores J.R.’s fantasy of sex with a series of women to The Doors’ “The End”, later of course also to become a key ingredient to his peer Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now! (1979).

Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in Who's That Knocking at My DoorJ.R. (Harvey Keitel) knows how to romance Zina Bethune: “Let me tell you something, that girl in that picture was a broad”

Holding everything together is a framing device in the form of a flashback to young J.R. being served food by his mother (Catherine Scorsese, Scrosese’s own mother). It’s an obviously happy memory, but we learn that the core theme of the film is that J.R. is emotionally crippled by the Catholic guilt instilled by his family and upbringing. He is unable to consummate the relationship with the girl he loves, and who loves him back. When he finds out she’s a victim of rape, he alternates between not believing the facts and blaming her. Even in the end, he sees her rape as something he must forgive her for. The penultimate sequence is a montage of Catholic iconography set to the title track by The Genies.


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Ridley Scott’s The Duellists

Ridley Scott

The Duellists movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s first feature film The Duellists (1977) is based on the Joseph Conrad short story “The Duel.” Feraud (Harvey Keitel) and D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), two French soldiers serving under Napoleon, become loyal enemies locked in a lifelong adversarial relationship. D’Hubert, eager to appease his superiors and advance his career, volunteers for a mission in which he obliviously humiliates Feraud. Both men are at fault: D’Hubert for his ambition, and Feraud for obsessively nursing his perpetual grievance. Their personal battles supersede French history, with even the reign and fall of Napoleon a mere backdrop to their personal feud.

Harvey Keitel in The DuellistsDon’t let the frilly sleeves fool you, Feraud (Harvey Keitel) will frite your pommes and manger your croissant

The Duellists is respected for the historical authenticity of its French military uniforms and depictions of period wartime conduct, but Keitel and Carradine’s flat American accents threaten to undo its achievements in verisimilitude. Luckily, the important bits, the duels, are staged silently. Scott, with his background in advertising, films everything beautifully, although one does catch glimpses of the occasional lamp and smoke machine. The landscapes during the final duel are especially breathtaking.

Keith Carradine in The DuellistsKeith Carradine is a comin’ ta getcha, Mr. White!

I’ve seen hardly any of Carradine’s movies, but I do have great respect for his brilliant portrayal of one of America’s first celebrities, Wild Bill Hickok, in the HBO series Deadwood. And Keitel gets to show off his serious muscles in a gratuitous arm-wrestling sequence.


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